Tokyo 2020: Mona McSharry’s achievement a paradigm shift for Irish swimming

Sligo woman’s success in reaching an Olympic final a huge fillip for the sport

 Mona McSharry in action during the Women’s 100m Breaststroke semi-final at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre when she secured a coveted final spot. Photograph: Adam Davy/PA

Mona McSharry in action during the Women’s 100m Breaststroke semi-final at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre when she secured a coveted final spot. Photograph: Adam Davy/PA

 

Battles vary all the time. They can be the personal ones, the ones people rarely appreciate, the ones that earn medals and the ones that may not be part of any award ceremony but represent paradigm shifts in the sport.

Mona McSharry swims in an Olympic final early on Tuesday morning in Tokyo, something that inflates the sport more than anything else in 25 years. Her Olympic Games breaststroke performances over 100 metres will move swimming miles, advance it decades. Swimming knows it.

Michelle Smith de Bruin was the first and last Irish swimmer in modern times to make it to an Olympic final on her way to three gold medals and a bronze in Atlanta 1996. That is how bare the Irish larder has been.

Until Tuesday morning, when McSharry, from a little Sligo hamlet near the ocean at Mullaghmore called Grange, dives off her blocks at the Tokyo Aquatic centre.

The townland of Grange is close to a strip of land along the coastline just a few hundred yards long. But it takes in three counties, Donegal, Leitrim and Sligo. All three will claim McSharry as theirs.

For 25 years the Irish swimming experience has been to go to the Olympics and maybe gain a personal best or punch through a round of heats. And because the public scan the Olympics more closely it provoked a quadrennial wail.

Ireland was the island nation that struggled in the water. Reaching an Olympic final is a big deal that has been part of an almost unseen swimming revolution.

“Since myself and the rest of the performance team took over at the beginning of 2017, we’ve made a number of wholesale changes, which you would say have all had an effect,” said Ireland’s national performance director, Jon Rudd.

Tokyo 2020

Full coverage of the Olympic Games in Japan READ MORE

“Our first Olympic finalist, first World Championship finalist [Shane Ryan in 2018], the biggest ever Irish team to come to an Olympic Games both swimming and diving and the first Irish relay in an Olympic Games. They are a lot of sound bites,” he says. “But they are pretty big deals.

“I would say the system is in a very healthy professional state and that’s no disrespect to what it was like before. It’s just an evolvement and we’ve built on that. There will be a point in time where someone will build on what we’ve done and it will go further again.”

McSharry has always had the talent and pedigree. Her medal haul has shown that as a 2017 European junior champion in the 50m and 100m breaststroke, and also 2017 World junior champion in the 100m breaststroke.

Elite programme

But her move to the University of Tennessee has accelerated improvement with her breakout in Tokyo likely to bring as much attention as winning the seventh series of the popular RTÉ reality competition, Ireland’s Fittest Family, under the guidance of mentor and former Irish secondrow Donncha O’Callaghan.

“In the case of Mona, university age and moving to a highly established, professional and elite programme and really gaining from expertise and having other fantastic athletes around her, there’s no doubt that’s the macro change for her,” says Rudd.

“And again it’s no disrespect to where she was swimming before. But the two environments would be poles apart in terms of resources and the quality of the athletes around her. Mona would have very much been a stand-out swimmer where she was. But in this university programme she would be one of a multitude of athletes that can make Olympic semi-finals and finals.”

He is excited but cautious not to overstate the breadth of the progress or the effect it will have on his team looking towards the Paris Games in three years’ time.

The next highest Irish swimmer to McSharry is ranked 20th on the start sheets, Ellen Walshe. The core of the team is ranked between 20th and 30th. What McSharry has brought to the table is belief. She wasn’t born when De Bruin won her medals and had to kick open her own doors. It means others don’t have to.

“It’s very, very important because it’s a quarter of a century since it last happened and the belief this will instil into young Irish kids just taking up the sport or just establishing themselves.

“Doesn’t matter where you’re from, or how rural your area is or what you may or may not have.If you have ability and go looking for the opportunities then you can rise to the top of the world.

Truly matters

“Here she is one of the top-ranked swimmers in the world, not just on a piece of paper but she has delivered it in the arena that truly matters and that’s a bigger deal.”

Now that she has become the poster girl, the clamour will be directed at the Sligo 20-year-old. But other, less obvious battles are being won everywhere that just Rudd and the swimmers can celebrate.

“We haven’t dropped a position yet [at the Olympics] and that’s the little bit of a culture change,” he says.

“We’re moving up and with all of our team here we might not be knocking on the doors of finals yet, but we have got something that’s brewing in Irish swimming. That’s what is exciting. It’s exciting this week, but it is also exciting for Paris.”

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.